The Art of the Exhale


When I was in the hospital, they initially put me in a ward for the thoracic surgery candidate-type patients. The nurses were awesome, very competent and friendly. I think they enjoyed a patient who, while definitely the worse for wear, wasn't one of the pain-med fuzzy, post-surgical majority. The day after I was diagnosed, (it was understood that I'd be moving from the Thoracic section to Oncology, but they were still sorting out rooms,) one of my regular nurses came in and sat with me for a while. She wasn't used to things like this, she said. She hadn't expected that I might have cancer and or that surgery wasn't in the cards. She handed me a box of tissues, but really, she needed them more than I did. Hey, a nurse who can cry over you is a wonderful person indeed, but it's a little unsettling, y'know?

Once I moved to Oncology, I had another visitor. This time, it was the hospital chaplain. Without hesitation, she also handed me the ubiquitous box of tissues, then waited for me to... oh, I don't know. Vent? Bawl? Rage at the universe? Who knows? I didn't bother. I think she was a little disappointed.

A few weeks later, after I was cozily ensconced back in my home sweet home, the phone rang. It was a nurse who worked for my insurance company, assuring me that "We're in this together." (Presumably as long as the premiums continue to arrive in a timely manner.) We went over my treatments, my meds, how I was feeling, what side effects I had or could expect, etc. etc. etc. And then she asked how I was handling my depression.

"If it happens, I'll let you know," I assured her.

"It's only natural," she soothed, apparently still reading from a script that I'd unwittingly deviated from. "Has your doctor prescribed anything for it?"

"Uh, not unless you count the Lorazepam." (Lorazepam, by the way, is an anti-nausea medication, but it works mostly by knocking you unconscious for four hours. Thus, it is also considered an anti-anxiety medication.) "If I need anything though," I added, "I'll definitely ask."

There was a long silence at the other end of the line, then she clarified. "You're not depressed?"

"Cartwheels in the streets? No," I said. "Depressed? Also no. It is what it is."

Which has, in a way, been my catch-phrase through the entire mess.
It is what it is.

Now to be completely honest, I did give depression a try about ten years ago. Post-divorce, I was so depressed that I was practically catatonic with it. I never even went to a doctor or counselor, because, you know, no one cared about me anyway. *Snurfle.* All it did was give me raging indigestion. So yeah, I'm not going to sink into a blue funk over cancer, but shouldn't I, at the very least, have been scared out of my tiny little mind?

Over the weeks and months, even a few of my closest friends have given me the doubtful eyebrow twitch and expressed a belief that I am not emoting as honestly as I ought. I haven't bawled, or shed more than the occasional private tear, or raged at the unfairness of the universe. Instead, I've cracked jokes and played video games. My friends don't think it's... well, healthy.

In fact, it got to the point where I was starting to wonder about that myself. It's not that I don't care. It's not that I'm not concerned. And though I am serene in the knowledge that my Redeemer lives and that there is undoubtedly a niche for me in Heaven, that doesn't mean that I haven't earned the right to at least a moderate hissy-fit or two here on Earth.

This is what I've come up with.

I've spent the majority of my years working, in some capacity, with horses. (Oh come on, you
knew I'd bring horses into this, right?) From summer camp, to riding lessons, to stable management school, to actually managing a stable, to giving riding lessons to kiddies, to training and mucking and grooming and even owning a succession of four-legged carrot-crunchers myself, I have dealt with horses on and off for thirty-three years.

Horses are reactive creatures. What's more, they're prey animals. Lions and tigers and bears, (oh my!) think that our equine friends taste mighty fine . Naturally therefore, horses are always instinctively on the lookout for the next bug-eyed horse eating monster. (Especially the tricky ones shaped like trees, rocks or plastic grocery bags.) At the first hint of danger, most horses will gather themselves, leap into the air, bolt for the horizon at Warp factor 9, and ask questions later.

Horses, to be succinct, are paranoid freaks.

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So, what's the worst thing a human can do around a horse?

Show fear.

When you're trotting along on a brisk October morning and a flock of birds erupt from some nearby trees and your horse's head shoots up in the air, ears at rigid attention, and he plants his feet, bunches his muscles and snorts a triple exclamation pointed countdown for launch, what does the smart rider do?

Exhale.

Sigh.

Relax.

And then, just maybe, if you're lucky, ol' Thunderguts will pause a moment and think things over.
Hmm. Rider isn't scared. Rider is... bored? This is boring? Why would– oh. Oh! Those are birdies! Oh. Ha. Yeah. Oops. This is embarrassing. Uhm, we can trot again, right? Yeah, okay. Sorry.

On the other hand, if the birds explode from the trees and you snatch up the reins and start shouting, "Whoa! Whoa!" I can guarantee that your hayburner will be making tracks for the next county. Maybe you'll still be on board when you get there. Maybe not. The fact is, your tension and quick movements and shouting only reinforces the scariness of the situation.
My rider is freaking out and she's a carnivore who eats cows in a bun!!!! Eeeeek! Those birds must be piranhas with wings!!! We're all gonna dieeeeeee!!!! Time to jet!!!!!!!!

It's not foolproof and it's not fail-safe, but the relaxed approach beats out the panicked one 999 times out of 1,000.

So, you practice. You practice the exhale. When the excrement hits the oscillation in the tiny little mind of your loyal steed, you learn not to take the time to evaluate what the "danger" actually is. By then it's too late. No, at the first sign of tension, you perfect the practice of sighing meaningfully. You learn how to relax your muscles and sink down into the saddle and become just a little heavier under the weight of your utter boredom in the face of the unexpected. You learn to center yourself.

And eventually, when he finds himself (or herself)
not being eaten by those vicious plastic bags and menacing rocks, your horse starts to pick up the same habit. He draws his confidence from the rider on his back, or the hands on the reins, or the schmuck at the other end of the lead rope.

He learns to exhale too.

So maybe, just maybe, my lack of reaction isn't really a lack of reaction at all, but just a long established habit. Maybe all those years with the horses taught me an invaluable coping skill that I never realized I had until my friends started bugging me about how much I wasn't... well, bugged.

Maybe in a small way, I've learned the art of the exhale.

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